The Military Service Member and Veteran’s Guide to Project Management Degrees and Career Opportunities

project management careers

The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

At its heart, project management is about organization. The American military, you’ll quickly realize, is all about organization. And for good reason… when you’re planning a time-on-target artillery shoot with armor and infantry pushing through the same terrain immediately afterward, any little glitch or delay can compromise the mission.

As a veteran, you’ll know all about teamwork, clear communication, and a mission-oriented posture. That’s all going to be music to the ears of hiring managers in any industry that employs project managers. And that’s basically every industry, everywhere.

But don’t think you’re going to just step right into high-paying project management positions right out of the service. Because the military is built around planning and execution of complex missions, planners and leaders have some advantages that don’t exist in the civilian sector. Everyone with a lower rank basically has to do everything you say, for one thing. And commitment, readiness, and adaptability are baked-in to the military mindset.

Good luck with that in most civilian organizations! There is still a lot left to learn for you about persuasion, process, and communication in project management. And that is all on the table in a project management degree earned with your veterans’ education benefits.

Explore Your Military Training and Degree Options

Everything Everywhere Is All About Project Management

project manager tracking progressProject management is about getting things done. And everybody needs to get things done—the military, private corporations, government, non-profits, you name it. They may not always call it a project—maybe it’s an action plan, or a capital upgrade, or something else—but the basics are always there:

Does that sound like a battle plan, or what?

Often, the ability to plan and organize is a competitive differentiator for those organizations. Homebuilders who can successfully put up a house a few days faster than average spend less money on wages, see a faster return on investment, and don’t waste resources. Chip makers or software manufactures with on-the-ball project management get their products on the market faster and dominate their field.

You’ll find project management professionals playing key roles in every industry and type of organization.

Just as in the military, project management is about planning and managing the execution of those plans. It involves a lot of:

You’ll spend most of your time in front of a screen or out working with the project team, gathering data, and filling them in on the latest changes. And you’ll usually have responsibilities for briefing senior executives on your progress—which will be a breeze after you’ve lived through briefing a two-star at any point in your military career.

Project Management Salaries Reflect the Value the Job Brings

project manager working on laptopThe Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tracks salaries for project management professionals across the whole range of industries and areas they work in. You’ll be happy to find that the average salary for 2021 for all project managers came in just shy of six figures, at $98,420 per year.

Project managers in the top ten percent of the field, with the most training and experience, made more than $159,150 in 2021.

Averages are great, but the specific salary you can expect will probably depend quite a bit on the field in which you choose to practice. Every industry has unique challenges and systems that project managers have to become familiar with. That means the value of project management can vary quite a bit from business to business.

According to BLS, wages in the top 5 industries of employment for project managers in 2021 reflect the demand:

Military Planners Were Managing Projects Long Before It Became a Hot Degree Field

soldier learning project management skillsAs some of the first major, large-scale efforts of human organization, the world’s armies became the first project managers by default. You better believe that Xerxes’ generals and their staffs were burning the oil lamps late at night figuring out how to get some 2 million troops from more than 50 different nations across the Hellespont for the invasion of Greece. Too bad they all got whomped at Plataea.

Still, getting a lot of people and the resources they need in the right place, at the right time to do what the mission requires is a critical piece of any military organization.

It’s not just the big stuff, either. Right down to the squad level, NCOs are organizing evolutions like:

Pretty much everyone in the military ranked above E-4 or so gets some core project management experience in the service.

If nothing else, you will be a PowerPoint wizard by the time you are discharged. The infamous spaghetti chart on Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics that set off a firestorm in senior leadership in 2015 was nothing compared to what you’ll be asked to create for your unit Christmas party, for example.

Military Positions Offering the Most Project Management Training Opportunities

Project management is so engrained in the military mindset that there isn’t really a specific Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) dedicated to it. Basically, any kind of leadership role, and to some extent pretty much every other kind of role, is going to up your organizational game, from bootcamp and beyond. That puts officers right at the top— you could say their entire world is a whirlwind of projects to be managed.

Officers all have bachelor’s degrees from the start, however. With options like ROTC, the Reserve Officer Training Corps, you may get scholarships to get those paid for—but project management isn’t on the list of in-demand majors.

Enlisted administrative assignments, like the Navy and Coast Guard Yeoman rating, or the Air Force Administration 3F5X1 position, may be likely to involve more time spent on project management tasks. The Army has a number of Additional Skill Identifiers (ASI) you can pick up on your primary MOS that might line you up for project management work, like the 3C Operational Contract Support or 1E Knowledge Management Professional.

Assignments in units that are managing development and acquisitions are a sure way to step up your project management skills. The Navy and Air Force are especially well known to have a lot of investment in big systems being developed or refurbished with private sector defense contractors. Assignment to any of these projects will show you how the big boys do project management, and familiarize you with the tools and techniques that get multi-million dollar projects done on-time and on-budget.

Military Training for Project Management Is Exhaustive and In-depth

satellite zoom of london, englandThe American military has turned project planning into a science. They will be happy to educate you to the fullest extent while you are still serving to make sure you get the picture.

Whether it’s the Marine Corps Planning Process, the Coast Guard GAR Model for evolution risk assessment, or the Air Force’s Project Management Resources Tools suite, every service has procedures and processes for project management.

Many of these both shape and reflect the same tools and techniques used in civilian project management processes. You’ll learn about workflows, resource management, modeling, and communication. As with your PowerPoint expertise, you’ll probably even use much of the same software.

Advanced training in project management isn’t usually separated from other kinds of training. You’ll run across opportunities like the Joint Enabling Capabilities Command’s JPSE Joint Planners Course, which offers common ground for members of every service to support planning, from time to time. But for the most part, planning is simply part of every kind of training evolution.

Getting Civilian Project Management Credentials With Credentialing Opportunities On-Line

One resource that every service leans on is the DoD (Department of Defense) COOL program. COOL offers a catalog of different civilian licenses and certifications that are related to your MOS, and can provide up to $4,000 in funding to take required classes or tests to earn them.

A wide range of private sector project management certifications are offered through COOL, and many troops end up picking one or more of them up with the blessing of their unit leadership. Some examples include:

Project Management Institute

CompTIA - Project+

American Society for Quality - Six Sigma Black Belt

Association of Change Management - Certified Change Management Professional

These not only offer training, but also light up your resume for hiring managers when you are looking for jobs after the service. The certs could take you big bucks and plenty of your own time to earn if you wait until after you are discharged, so COOL is a big deal to help you gear up for a project management career.

A Project Management Degree Can Augment Your Military Planning Experience

putting in dedication and hard workYou can come at college-level project management from a couple of different directions.

First, there are degrees that are specific to project management as a discipline. These come at all levels of education, from the two-year associate degree all the way up to a PhD that might take three years more on top of the undergraduate degree you need to get there.

But there are also many degrees in a wide range of fields that offer specializations in project management within that field. Examples include computer science, engineering, and construction management. Project management specializations are also very common in business degree program, particularly the hallowed MBA, or Master of Business Administration.

Which of these paths makes the most sense depends on both your background and career goals. If you’re already coming out of the military with substantial expertise in a particular field, then focusing your degree entirely on project management will give you the tools you need to manage projects and lead teams that much more effectively. If you don’t have a lot of familiarity with the field you plan to go into, then a major in that field with a project management concentration can make more sense.

Considering a Certification vs a Degree in Project Management

It’s also very common in the project management world to major in your field of interest, and then pick up a certificate in project management. What’s the difference between this and a degree?

Most certificate programs are essentially the same coursework as an associate degree in project management, stripped of any general education requirements and accelerated and compressed. They are designed to give you specific training in the tools and techniques of ground-level project management to get you up to speed when you already have an essential education in your profession.

Fortunately, many of these certificate programs are covered by GI Bill® benefits, or by the related VET TEC program. VET TEC offers a separate pool of funding that is available for technology-related training not offered by traditional universities. You must pick the provider from a VA-approved list, but tuition and housing costs are covered just as with the Post-9/11 GI Bill®… but all your GI Bill® benefits remain available to pursue a regular degree.

Core Project Management Classes Are About Getting Everyone on the Same Page

project manager in a planning meetingClasses for project management degrees revolve around basic concerns of organization and scheduling… all stuff you will be pretty familiar with from your time in the service. But where you might have had a rough and ready intro to planning and management in the military, these courses will break it all down for you, covering both theory and practical applications to bring all the skills and tools together.

They’ll cover subjects such as:

Communication theory and management – Powerpoint, Gantt charts, presentations, memos, stand-up meetings… these are all ways that project managers keep everyone on the same page. You’ll have plenty of courses in both the theory of organizational communication and applications for communicating plans clearly and effectively.

Organizational theory – There has been a lot of research conducted on various ways of structuring organizations and project teams. You’ll learn what the findings have been and what the different models are, from agile to waterfall, together with the pluses and minuses of each approach.

Statistics and analysis – Estimation and forecasting is an important part of project management. You’ll learn the math and processes you need to make accurate predictions and analyze how your project is going along the way.

Human Resources – Some of the biggest challenges in any project are the people who are working on it! Although project managers don’t have to be HR professionals, they do have to become experts in assessing competency, cheerleading, wheedling, and team-building, which is what these courses will help teach you.

Time, Cost, and Quality Management – Projects die when they don’t keep these three factors under control, so any project management degree will spend a lot of time covering how to manage the key factors of success.

Risk Management – Finally, project management degrees also look at risk calculation and benefit analysis. Choose a new, untested architectural paradigm that could shave four months off the completion date… or crash and burn the budget if it doesn’t work? You’ll learn how to look at your risk and weigh it against other factors to make the right choices.

Unlike other degree programs, you’re unlikely to find many specialty concentrations in a project management program. In fact, project management is more likely to be found as a concentration in a different major! Most specialization in the project management world is by industry, so you’ll be learning on the job.

You may, however, have the opportunity to pick up electives as part of your degree to help guide your education in the direction you want.

Military-Supportive Schools Make the Most of the Project Management Experience You Already Have

project management taking notesHopefully we have convinced you by now that you absolutely are going to need a degree in project management to succeed in the field. That means your next step is going to be figuring out which college to earn it at.

To make the most of both your background and the benefits you have coming to you, a college that is military friendly is probably your best bet. But what exactly is that? There’s no definition published by the Pentagon or the VA. Many colleges claim they are military friendly.

But you can tell which schools are truly military-supportive and which are just making the claim with a little sleuthing. The VA’s GI Bill® Comparison tool, available freely on their website, is a good place to start.

It lets you search for schools which accept GI Bill® benefits, which is an absolute must. The GI Bill®, with 36 months of benefits for the average veteran, is the single most valuable educational benefit you’ll get.

For most vets, that’s enough to get them all the way through a bachelor’s degree. Those 36 months come with:

Military-supportive schools are also likely to participate in the Yellow Ribbon program. That’s a partnership between those schools and the VA, each contributing a fixed amount to a certain number of veterans to cover tuition expenses over and above what the GI Bill® handles. That only comes up at private colleges or if you are having to pay out-of-state tuition. But any school willing to cough up funds for vets is giving you a sure sign they get who you are and where you are coming from.

That also makes them more likely to offer other military-supportive services or benefits, such as:

You may not use any or all those features, but it’s great to know they are there if you need them.

Veterans Bring More to the Table Than Just Expertise in Planning

Although planning and executing projects with critical timing and budget constraints is second nature for most military veterans, those aren’t the only skills employers are looking for. Whether you realize it or not, you’ll have a lot of other qualities that make for a great project manager that come with you after you leave the service:

These qualities can be just as important as your degree when an employer is looking over your resume. And they are some of the key traits you can count on to be a competitive job candidate.

Between your service experience and the knowledge you pick up in a degree program, it’s a strong package to bring to project management roles in any industry.

2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Project Management Specialists reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed August 2022.